Oklahoma has a dark underworld. The blackness is unimaginably thick, and throughout the state's underbelly, tunnels and cracks wind through a world that most people never see.
Caves in Oklahoma are few and far between, but those that do exist are more unique than the typical limestone kind throughout America. One of the world's largest gypsum caves is in Oklahoma, while others boast of outlaw legends and creatures of the night.
The huge Ozark-Cookson Hills in northeast Oklahoma offers the most by way of caving, being a carryover of the Missouri-Arkansas cave complex, but the Blaine Gypsum formation, which runs from Woodward to Weatherford, boasts of the highest concentration of gypsum caves in the world. The Arbuckle Mountains region also contains several.
For those looking for a weekend adventure, exploring the underside of the state can be as tame or as wild as you wish.
Into the wild Located near Freedom, Alabaster Caverns State Park offers a three-fourth-mile cavern formed of alabaster and is the largest natural gypsum cave in the world open to the public. The park offers lantern tours through the cave to view wildlife, pink and white alabaster boulders, and selenite crystals, but for those seeking a more intimate adventure, wild caves await.
"We have four wild caves, ranging from 600 feet to 1,300 feet," said Mike Caywood, Alabaster Caverns park manager. "All the wild caves are horizontal, so you don't have to do any rope work. They are fairly simple caves, but great for those who want to try wild caving."
The allure to exploring their dark world is the unknown, Caywood said.
"It's something different to do. It's not like a regular hike. In a cave, you are surrounded and encompassed by rock," he said. "When you first go into a cave, your adrenaline goes up, your heart is in your throat. It's natural to feel a little unsure because you are going deep into a place with nothing to lead you out. It's sometimes intimidating."
But Caywood loves it. With more than 34 years of spelunking experience, he has logged more than 8,000 hours underground. He understands people's natural fear of caving, especially feeling claustrophobic, but the Alabaster Caverns are among the safest to explore.
"Really, with most natural caves, there is very, very little chance of a cave-in," he said. "To explore the wild caves at our park, you have to go in a group with very specific equipment. We're here to make sure they have a safe time."
Those wishing to explore caves on their own are also required to check in with park personnel before and after each visit.
Dark cityRobbers Cave State Park in Wilburton is a favorite for cave enthusiasts, as well as rappellers, hikers and campers.
The cave itself enjoys a bit of notoriety as a hideout for such outlaws as Jesse James and Belle Star, but was once home to prehistoric man, too. Later, the area was a favored hunting ground for the Caddo and Osage Indians. The outlaws came later, when Civil War deserters used the cave as a refuge after raids and robberies.
"Robbers Cave isn't like a wild cave," said Merle Cox, park manager. "It's a big hole in the rock. It's up on a series of hiking trails, and you can see why it made such a good hideout."
The wildlife is another draw for underground enthusiasts. At dusk each summer day, millions of Mexican free-tailed bats pour out of the mouth of the Selman Bat Cave near Woodward, filling the twilight with flapping wings. The cave is part of the Selman Wildlife Management Area, which is generally closed to the public, but a biologist with the state Wildlife Department will escort visitors to witness the nightly flight.
Turner Falls, located in the Arbuckle Mountains in Davis, also offers three natural caves easily accessed via hiking trails. The Big Crystal, located in a sinkhole, and the Wagon Wheel, a hole in a cliff, are located on a path south from Turner Falls Park. "Heide Brandes
photo Robbers Cave near Wilburton is named for the outlaws who once hid there. photo/Mark Hancock